Have you ever done something and not realized the importance of what you’ve done until sometime after?
That’s what I experienced after visiting the British Library to see their exhibition ’WRITING – Making Your Mark’. The exhibition claims to cover the narrative of human writing from its early origins through its evolution into different writing systems, techniques used, and the future of writing itself – Will technology eventually supersede handwriting?
Now being an African man of reasonable intelligence, I went with low expectations. African contributions to world history are seldom if ever acknowledged by European Institutions, but I should’ve lowered them even further. According to the exhibition the African contribution to the entire canon of human literature over the past five thousand years is a page of Egyptian (Kemet) Hieroglyphics, a page of Ethiopian Coptic script, and a page of VAI script – a West African script/alphabet developed in the later nineteenth century.
I walked through the exhibition slowly, armed with a notepad, pen, and my mobile phone which I used discreetly for photos out of sight of the bored security guard.
The exhibition begins with the ‘Origins of Writing’ section. According to the scholars of the British Library the first writing systems emerged around 3000BC. They claim that writing ‘commenced independently’ across many cultures and regions – Egyptian Hieroglyphics, Mesopotamian Cuneiform, Chinese characters, Indus Valley Script. The most cursory non-Eurocentric glance at the history of writing shows the earliest forms evolved in Kemet around 5700BC, and an older writing system existed in Ta-Seti (Ancient Nubia) before then. So, in their desperation to minimize African achievement they’ve dismissed two and half thousand years of Ancient African literature. They’ve dismissed such works as ‘The Book of Coming Forth by Day’ (otherwise known as the Book of the Dead) ‘The Ahmose Papyrus’ (the world’s oldest surviving medical document) and the Maxims of Ptahhotep (the world’s oldest surviving complete book). The exhibition’s organizers also produced an Activity Book for younger visitors. Inside it dates Mesopotamia literature as 3400BC and makes it older than Kemetic (Egyptian) which it dates as 3200BC.
The next section is on ‘ALPHABETS’. In this section it sites the origins of Hieroglyphic alphabet as “… began in Egypt by a group of migrants who modified Hieroglyphics to their own language”. Who were these ‘migrants’ who impacted so strongly on Kemetic culture? And if indeed they ’modified’ Hieroglyphics then what were the existing ‘glyphics’ that they improved? No such explanation is given. None is needed if the sole purpose is to sow doubt in the African origins of Hieroglyphics. They do correctly plot the evolution of written script from Hieroglyphic to Phoenician to Greek to Roman but by casting doubt on the African origins of Hieroglyphics they remove both our heritage and our cultural influence on others.
The following section is entitled ‘Writing Materials & Technology’. They give early examples of writing on clay pottery. Scratching in wax. Development of the stylus in bone, wood, or metal. Incising on metal. And writing on Palm leaves. There are no African examples given of any of these techniques, even though the North African invention of the Papyrus outdates all subsequent techniques and lasted into the mediaeval period. In fact, Papyrus was so well developed as an industrial technique that surviving African examples can still be found in museums all over the world. Add to that the fact that the use of clay pottery for writing has prehistoric African origins gives clear indication of how we’ve been literally ‘written out’ of this history.
I found two examples of African script within the Mediaeval Manuscripts section. And this is where they (British libray) are so clever. They mention the Bamum script created by King Njoya in 1896. It consisted of eighty characters and by 1918 it was in common use by the people of Bamum (Cameroon)
The other mention is the Vai script, created in 1830 also adopted by the general population. Both these scripts/alphabets were created in direct opposition to the violent imposition of European languages and the suppression of African languages during the colonial period. Both of them were acts of rebellion and revolution. But what does the British Library say? It says “the creation of their own script was a means of claiming their equality with European colonists who controlled their lands” This word-play is important to decipher as it positions Africans as playing ‘catch-up’ with European languages when the truth is Vai has its origins in the ancient African script Tifinagh. Even more importantly it reinforces notions of us as being ‘unequal’. Just because you’re invaded doesn’t mean you’re inferior to your invaders. Your invaders will tell you this as a method of mental and spiritual conquest. An ongoing conquest demonstrated here as the African scripts presented are given no cultural context other than their relationship to Europeans.
Within the exhibition examples of written word are shown from The Mughal Empire (Mongolia) Europe, Japan, India, China, Mesopotamia, even Rapa Nui (Easter Island) and the Inuit peoples of the Artic. However, there is a gaping hole which most visitors wont notice. Why? Because most people know nothing about the history of African literature.
At the end of last year I published my first book ‘The Afrikan Literary Heritage’ History and Workbook. My book charts the evolution of the written word and African literature from prehistoric times to modern. I was motivated to write it through my own passion for the subject and the realization that this information needs to be disseminated throughout our community particularly amongst our young people. The exhibition at the British Library confirmed for me just how important my book is in the face of our continued erosion from human history.
It also confirms that you reading this blog REALLY need to get yourself a copy, and that I REALLY need to start working on Volume 2. If we don’t learn about and value our own cultural production, our intellectual property, then do we really have the right to complain when others ignore it?
The Afrikan Literary Heritage is available from www.evolvingcreatives.com